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Looking Sharp: Top-Notch Cutlery

Manufacturers are focused on producing knives that cut food more easily as well as models that stand up better to chipping. Furthermore, manufacturers are trying to help you to keep your cutlery sharp by taking the work out of the maintenance process.

Victorinox

The surge of media exposure that created celebrity chefs led to a welcome awareness of fresh, healthful food and quality cutlery.

However, that attention can be short-lived: For example, the Japanese-style Santoku knife, which saw a rise because of constant touting, particularly by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, is ebbing in popularity, says Debra Mednick of The NPD Group. Now, manufacturers tell us that they’re focused on the quality of the steel and the manufacturing process to shift the focus from trendy knife shapes to using the correct knife in the kitchen.

What’s better, prices for cutlery have remained relatively stable. As a result, whether you choose a set or an individual knife, the cost shouldn’t cut into your budget any more than it did before.

BY DESIGN. Just a few years ago, Japanese-style knives received the most buzz, particularly the Santoku, which is a broad knife that has a long, flat cutting edge that curves up slightly at the tip for slicing, dicing and chopping. Manufacturers added Santoku knives to sets, and the category grew compared with other types of knives.

That expansion stalled. For the 12-month period that ended in May 2015, unit sales of Santoku knives were down by 23 percent, Mednick tells us. Despite that drop, however, we haven’t noticed lower prices.

Brendan McDermott, who is a chef instructor and knife guru at Kendall College’s Culinary Arts program, attributes this change to individual preference. An ideal knife, including the handle and the blade, is one that fits the cook and the way that he/she uses it, McDermott says. Consequently, instead of redesigning or adding types of knives, manufacturers these days pay more attention to knife quality and maintenance or use.

Japanese-style knives still affect the cutlery market in different ways. They are made from steel that’s thinner and harder than that of German-style knives. However, they also require more upkeep, because the thinner, harder edge is more brittle, and the slight angle of the edge is more difficult to maintain when you sharpen the blade.

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STEEL DEAL. When it comes to changes in knives, you’ll find that manufacturers of both German- and Japanese-style knives are focused on their manufacturing processes. Eight major manufacturers now use forge-welding on 14 different lines that include more than 100 blade shapes—the most ever. Experts say forge-welding provides more flexibility to harder steel and allows blades to hold an edge better than do knives that are made by the less expensive stamped-steel process.

Forge-welding is a process whereby a core layer of high-carbon steel is hardened to take an extremely sharp edge. The core is clad, or sandwiched, among layers of softer, more flexible steels and steel alloys—often between 15 and 50 layers on each side. The layers then are welded—heated, hammered and cooled to extreme temperatures—to bond the metals and make the steel tougher and better able to withstand the damage from everyday use.

You might see the term “Damascus” used by manufacturers of forge-welded knives. However, even though forge-welding produces a wave-like pattern on the blade that’s similar to what ultrahigh-quality Damascus steel or pattern-welding produces, forge-welded knives don’t have the same level of craftsmanship—or price. These processes use at least 300 layers of steel and can produce a single knife that costs as much as $2,500.

Manufacturers of stamped knives even use the term “Damascus” for their knives, but don’t be fooled. These knives are machine-etched to produce a similar wavy pattern on the blade. The pattern on an etched knife typically, but not always, ends at least a shade more than one-eighth of an inch above the knife edge. Also, an 8-inch forge-welded chef’s knife typically costs about $100, while an etched-stamped version can be as low as $20. The price difference is because the steel that’s used on a stamped knife typically isn’t as high quality, and the production doesn’t involve the same level of time and attention for machine-etching as it does for forge-welding.